Thursday, October 30, 2014

looking at second-person point-of-view

There are not many stories written in second-person point of view, at least not many that are well-known.  In books on writing, a handful of examples are given that are often repeated among the discussions, but from time to time a new use of the mode will be undertaken by a fresh, contemporary fiction writer.

A very good example of second-person writing (and an excellent work of fiction) is given in a recent short story, "The Rhett Butlers," by Katherine Heiny (The Atlantic, Oct. 2014).  Second-person writing is sometimes described as simply substituting 'you' for ' I ' in what would otherwise be first-person writing.  That's largely true, but just that exchange can have a major effect on how the reader responds to a story.  Moreover, there are many other nuances that also can be called into play with the second-person technique.  Let's just shorten the terminology to POV-2, and for first-person writing, POV-1, etc., for our following discussion.

Heiny's story is about a seventeen-year old girl student who becomes involved with her 40-yr. old history teacher.  It's a story that would probably most often be attempted in POV-1, but how reliable might the girl character be in revealing her motivations and emotional state when she herself might be expected to prevaricate about such things.  By using POV-2 we might be able to challenge her views, and allow her some sidestepping or irony in revealing her motivations. The POV-2 can also be useful in having the second-person narrator reveal some backstory or exposition that might seem unnatural or forced if left to the girl to furnish to the reader.  It will be useful to examine a few excerpts from the story to show the style and nuances that Heiny employs.  Here is one of the early paragraphs that will help set up the story as well as show the POV-2 style she so deftly uses:

YOU AND MR. EAGLETON are becoming regulars at the Starlite Motel.  The first time you stayed in the car while Mr. Eagleton checked in, but now you go in with him to see what name he uses when he signs the register.  He always chooses characters from your favorite novels: Mr. and Mrs. Gatsby, Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield, Mr. and Mrs. Finch, Mr. and Mrs. Twist.  This idea seems very romantic to you, even though you would never change your name, and certainly not to Eagleton.
The woman behind the counter seems to like Mr. and Mrs. Butler best.  "Ah, the Rhett Butlers," she says every time.  "Welcome back."
She is a large, motherly woman, who looks a lot like Mrs. Harrison, the womanwho drives the Children's Bookmobile.  She always has the TV on, and always on a channel showing Wheel of Fortune.  She's unbelievably good--you once saw her guess "Apocalypse Now" just from the letter C.
 This woman makes you feel a lot better.  Nothing bad can happen to you here. 

Notice how the narrator can fill in the reader on the prior frequency of visits, and show an equanimity of the girl, as well as her naivete, and other background things that would have been a lot more awkward in first-person exposition.  

Here is a slightly later paragraph that also illustrates the nuanced values of POV-2:


MARCY TELLS HER PARENTS that she's sleeping at your home.  This way she can stay out past her curfew or even all night.  She's going over to Jeff Lipencott's house; his parents are out of town.
 You agree.  Of course you do--think of all the times Marcy has covered for you.  You sit in the TV room, wearing sweats and your glasses and eating cold Pop-Tarts.  You wish only the very best for Marcy, but you feel forlorn picturing her at Jeff Lippencott's, maybe lying in his parent's bed, leading a real life.
Marcy knocks on the window a little after 11.  You open it and she steps over the window ledge, shaking little diamonds of cold rain from her hair, and says, "Oh my God, he's such an asshole!  He spent the whole time doing hand stands with his friends, and I didn't know anyone and wound up helping his little sister weave pot holders."
 This story should make you feel lots better.  It should make you happy to be you again.  But it doesn't.

The choice of POV-2 for this story seemed so right.  Check out the full story in The Atlantic.  You owe it to your career.  Another interesting story in POV-2, a novel actually, Chris Lynch's, "Freewill," a Printz Honor Award book.  Lynch has a long list of good YA titles, and is such a fine writer that it was inevitable he'd take up the challenge to write an intriguing POV-2 classic.  Read this one, too.

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